Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

After a decade of robust year-over-year growth, Hawaii eclipsed 10 million annual visitors for the first time in 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

But the milestone was met with a fresh round of hand wringing and debate in the Aloha State. From tour providers and hotel companies to neighborhood boards, state politicians and the HTA, focus has shifted from attracting more visitors to better managing the ones already coming. Counties are promoting their own pledges that remind visitors about responsible behaviors and practices, studies on the impacts of tourism are in the works, and "sustainable" is at the top of mind.

Over 10.4 million visitors came to the Aloha State in 2019, vs. roughly 9.9 million visitors in 2018. On any given day there were nearly 250,000 visitors on the Islands, a 3% increase from 2018. Visitor spending grew slightly more than 1%, to $17.75 billion, as the average daily spend per visitor decreased 2% from a year prior, to $195.

Hawaii's hotels benefited from the record visitor traffic in the form of year-over-year growth in revenue per available room, average daily rate and occupancy rate.

According to the HTA, RevPAR statewide rose 4%, to $229; ADR climbed 3%, to $283; and the occupancy rate increased nearly a percentage point, to greater than 81%. Total hotel revenue for the year was up 2%, to $4.49 billion, while there were 356,000 fewer available room nights, a 2% drop from 2018.

Compared to top U.S. markets including New York, San Francisco/San Mateo, Miami, Los Angeles and Boston, hotels in Hawaii had the highest RevPAR and ADR and ranked third in occupancy.

In 2010 there were 6.9 million visitors to the Islands, and the new visitor milestone caps a decade of strong, steady growth for Hawaii tourism coming out of the Great Recession. The state department of Economics, Business and Tourism forecasts continued expansion, with estimates of 10.7 million visitors in 2020 and more than 11 million annual visitors by 2022.

One of the largest tourism markets in the world still remains largely untapped for Hawaii. After the first half of the decade saw steady gains in visitors from China, visitation has declined every year since 2015. With the coronavirus outbreak already leading to a reduction in Chinese tourism, 2020 is unlikely to reverse that trend.

Tourism from Japan, which sends roughly 1.5 million visitors to Hawaii annually as the state's biggest market outside of the U.S., dropped 2% in 2018 but rebounded in 2019 with 3% growth and is expected to continue growing in 2020.

Tourism is the No. 1 industry and largest employer in Hawaii outside of the federal and state government. Spending by visitors generated $2.07 billion in state tax revenue in 2019 and supported 216,000 tourism industry jobs in Hawaii, according to the HTA.

The last decade of growth has been a catalyst for action, and as the state crept toward the milestone of 10 million annual visitors, calls for better management have grown louder. Popular sites are increasingly coming under new regulation systems to better handle the impact and volume of people.

The state completed a multi-agency "sustainable tourism" report in 2006 that included three pages of recommendations. Some were implemented but most were not, and issues outlined in the report including much needed funding and improvements for the state's parks remain hot button topics today.

Multiple counties, including Kauai and Hawaii Island, have adopted their own voluntary pledges in the last year that remind visitors and residents to respect the land and each other. On Oahu at the end of January, a bill establishing a pledge to "Keep Hawaii Hawaii" and promote cooperation among agencies passed the Honolulu City Council unanimously. At the start of February, councilwoman Kymberly Pine introduced a resolution that would support an annual study of tourism's impact on Oahu, the state's most visited island.

"We need to start thinking about how much is too much -- how many tourists will it be until our island is not the same anymore?" Pine said in introducing the resolution.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has accordingly shifted its tone, as well, running campaigns that support responsible tourism and putting more resources toward visitor management and increasing the revenue per visitor.

Daily spending dipped on all four of the most visited islands in 2019 compared to 2018, but growth in arrivals led to total revenue increases on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island. Kauai, after a record 2018, saw a 5% drop in total visitor spending, a 2% decline in daily spending and a 1% fall in arrivals. Visitors from both the Mountain West and Pacific regions of the U.S. jumped more than 10% in 2019, leading all markets.

The largest decreases in spending by market came from international markets other than Canada and Japan, with a 9% drop in daily spending and 10% fall in total spend.

Arrivals to the Islands by both air (5%) and cruise ship (12%) grew year over year in 2019. The total number of trans-Pacific air seats servicing Hawaii expanded 3% in 2019, to 13.6 million, as growth from both the U.S. East and U.S. West offset fewer seats out of Canada, Japan, Oceania and other Asian markets.

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